The Cone of Silence

On breaking into a creative community

When I first started writing science fiction and fantasy stories, I was completely unaware of the breadth and scope of the SFF community. I’d just started sending out my work, learning what I wanted to write, and making friends who also liked to write. I started going to conventions because I wanted to meet others like me. It was the year that the “Sad Puppies” swept the Hugo Awards, the longest-running prize for science fiction and fantasy works. When the Sad Puppies controversy hit, I remember reading Twitter as a total outsider and rethinking my choice. I found myself asking, “Is this really a community I want to be a part of?”

Most people who’ve been involved in the SFF community for a long time don’t realize how hard it is to break in. Or maybe they do, and they’re just not very sympathetic about it. 

I made a lot of normal newbie mistakes in my first year of writing. I struggled with the convention culture of “Bar Con” (when people gather at the bar of a convention, even if they aren’t actually attending the convention itself). Not because I don’t drink, but because I’m an introvert, and I don’t have a face that says “Talk to me!” like some folks. I wasn’t sure which events were safe. I’d look up a con only to realize there was some controversy years ago. I picked random events to attend and slowly realized which ones worked for me. I made friends with anyone who wanted to talk to me about my writing. It was exciting: Here is another person who likes the same thing as me! I fell into friendships hard and fast, only to be burned.

Close-up image of a woman with her finger on her lips in the traditional "shhh" pose.

As we get more comfortable and become more established as community members, we talk in code. We establish whisper networks—useful, secret messages between members warning others of one person who is harmful. But communities rarely say those names out loud. Because the opportunity for harm, harassment, and the tarnishing of reputation is very real for those who speak up. A member of the Houston writing community I’m a part of was long known as an abuser. But he was very well-established in the community, worked for a reputable local literary business, and still to this day has not been “outed.” I knew of his reputation, and yet I was complacent. I warned new writers about him when asked, but I wasn’t going to be the one to tell the world about him. Because I felt vulnerable. I didn’t have enough clout to speak out and bear the brunt of the backlash sure to follow.

I’ve been a warnee, too. When I became casual acquaintances with someone who seemed like a Big Deal in the SFF writing community, I was warned to stay away from him. Everyone seemed to “know” this person was bad behind closed doors. But in public, they interacted with him as if nothing was wrong. They retweeted him, celebrated his successes, and in general acted outwardly as if they endorsed him. It was only later when one person spoke out against him that hundreds more added to the conversation. There was a palpable sense of relief—”Oh finally, someone else admitted it.” I was dismayed to learn of the actions of this one person, and how many people I considered friends were mistreated by him but didn’t tell me. I’d been warned to avoid him, but no one told me why. Many members of the SFF community felt the same way—forgotten.

Every community has ways it deals with dissenters, even those who are arguing for a more inclusive, transparent, and accepting community. I’ve had editors block me on Twitter for disagreeing with something they said. People have told me to my face they think my writing isn’t valuable because it’s not mainstream. I’ve lost friends in this community by advocating for marginalized voices, for transparency, for basic professionalism. And I’ve done things I regret, too, out of ignorance. Like any social network, the SFF community is a complex web of connections. It’s hard to navigate. It’s full of imperfect humans, all with their own goals.

There are unspoken rules in every community. I’m a member of the neo-pro SFF group called Codex, a writing group for new writers who need to have at least one pro publication to join. In Codex, threads are dedicated to anonymous call-outs of problematic publishers, editors, and agents. It’s an exceedingly valuable resource for new members of the SFF community. Members converse daily about protecting yourself at conventions, avoiding folks who are abusers, and the general rules for navigating the SFF community. These conversations are considered protected by the rules of the group—threads marked with a “Cone of Silence” mean they shouldn’t be shared outside of Codex. I find myself wondering: What message are we sending by enacting a cone of silence? Who are we leaving out of the conversation?

Image of a carving of many faces close together, all of them partly worn away.

There are no easy answers to these questions. People create whisper networks to protect themselves. New writers can’t control who they first meet when they become a part of a community or what people don’t tell them. There are no truly useful public resources (beyond perhaps File 770, a website which lists ongoing controversies and news in the SFF world). Silence can harm the most vulnerable among the community. New writers, writers of color, marginalized writers who are often at the fringe. People often overlooked or dismissed. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of community do we want to be a part of? How do we keep ourselves safe while welcoming new members?

The truth is the solutions to many of the problems we encounter as a community have to come from within—not from without. Since my days as a newbie writer, I’ve come to be a part of a local writing community in Houston and a bigger national community as an SFF writer. I’m trying to pass on the lessons I’ve learned as a new writer to the more established voices in the field I’m in conversation with.

The SFF community should be a place where we look to the future and envision a better community where everyone feels safe and welcome. New members can and will bring change. But whether that change is embraced is what matters. 

If you’re struggling with breaking into a new creative community, know you are not alone. Here are some lessons I’ve learned that I hope will help: 

  • Put your safety first. As a newbie, it can be hard to tell who is trustworthy. Until you’ve established whether the person you’re interacting with is someone worth trusting, put your personal safety ahead of your creative work. This may mean skipping that “private party” at a con because it’s in the hotel room of someone you don’t know. Or it could be as simple as being aware of your own capabilities and mental energy. If someone is taking a lot of your energy, it’s okay to take a step back and reevaluate. A professional is not going to be offended by you saying, “I don’t have time right now, but thank you,” or “I’d love to talk further about this, but I’m taking a break right now.” If you feel uncomfortable at an event or around a person, your brain is trying to tell you something. Trust yourself. Consider taking a friend or family member to events, meet and introduce yourself to organizers, and be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Do your research. Before you go to an event, Google it. Look up who has attended in the past. Read about the guests of honor. See what other people are saying about the event. Sadly, a lot of the onus for this falls on the shoulders of new community members. But there are plenty of kind community members willing to share with you their experiences. Don’t be afraid to simply ask.
  • Be careful not to fall hard and fast. Take new relationships in the community with a grain of salt, as you do in life. This is hard because we’re often trained by society that relationships don’t start slowly. But the truth is that many relationships and networks deepen over time. Professional networks grow with you. Everything doesn’t have to happen at once—including making new friends. 
  • Be professional. One day, you will be the person people are asking for advice. Really. So learn how to ask in a way that’s kind, respectful, and patient. As you reach out to people for advice, you’ll find many that say “no.” There are a lot of reasons for this—people are busy, they may not feel qualified, they might not have an answer. All of this is fine. No one owes you their friendship.
  • Be the community you want to see. It sounds hokey but consider the golden rule. When I’m at an event, I try to reach out to new people. I ask them what they write and what makes them geek out. Even as a newbie, you can make people feel welcome. If you go into an event with the intent of helping someone else, it makes the process less scary.

What do you think? Do you have advice for newcomers to the genre and industry? Let us know on our forum!

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Holly Lyn Walrath

Holly Lyn Walrath’s writing appears in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, Liminality, and elsewhere. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She is known for her work in the Houston literary community with Writespace and other writing organizations.